Category Archives: Learning

In Defense of…

Not long ago I was writing some notes for The Constellation of Man about certain self-deceits of abstract thinkers, and in particular—to put a page of discussion succinctly—why philosophers (in a broad sense) feel accomplished about verbal descriptions of the world that do not match it. Even writing about false models yields an inward sense of order, and (like scientific knowledge) some sense of control over the world or orientation within it.

Every time I make a case along these lines—about the limitations of language, or against relying on any intensive subculture & psychological type built on systematic thought (e.g. men of letters, academics, scientists, philosophers)—it is intended to be constructive, in my Nietzschean fashion. But resistant, worrisome notions do spring to mind:

  • that I am going against the grain of defenses of the “life of the mind” which intellectuals tend to write today, in possibly-vain attempts to popularize it;
  • that attacks on dumbed-down culture depend on endorsements of linguistic and mental prowess that I could be seen as undermining;
  • that I am aiming at easy, marginalized targets—groups which have included or still include myself;
  • that I might be read as though I’ve succumbed to the pervasive disease of self-disgust.

It’s difficult not to write in solidarity with a marginalized group that one belongs to. I am keenly aware of writing for (against?) a modern audience, a quasi-literate world, which largely rejects my kind.

By “my kind,” I don’t simply mean intellectuals in the enterprising sense.

This world barely knows what to do with a generalist, the “Renaissance man” who once would have occupied essential roles, and renders almost every deep thinker an outsider if not an outcast. This has become so normalized they do not imagine their abilities could ever be welcomed. People dislike introspection, shrug at philosophy, and dismiss challenging literature. Intellectuals have few opportunities that pseudo-intellectuals have not taken. Fakes thrive in a culture tolerant of superficiality, and selling-out. The “literary world” is replete with an embarrassment of writers who should not have bothered, inspired by third-hand moral notions from ideologues, and boring formulae for creativity. Quantity proliferates while investing in quality seems pointless or quixotic. “Philosophers” are either dead, academic, or popularizers recycling old ideas. (Admittedly the sometimes-aligned categories of psychologists and scientists are more popular categories and aspirations, but these oftener refer to technical professions that don’t have much to do with being a “thinker.”)

My kind are infrequently persecuted today, but only because we are hardly seen. We feel as if we are, but much more to the point, we are ignored when we crusade, and superfluous in our hiding places.

What I do, and what I stand for has no purchase in a world that seeks not the transformative power of understanding, but nodding in agreement, and vituperative argument. The outspoken detest nuance and repel curiosity. Elitist snobs, smug about nothing more accomplished than a highfalutin philistinism, look down on the coarse folk who are proud to spite them with the lowbrow kind.

Everywhere we witness the unspiritual work of the uncreative, uninterested in profound human experience, and worse, contemptuous of it. Humanism no longer means anything useful. It is a world which has left behind both the apolitical (or antipolitical) values of culture, and the virtues of Man.

So I feel that I should stand up for philosophy, for genuine intellectuals, for long thoughts and real books. I am very sympathetic.

But I see it as part of my task to sincerely address the limitations of words and the foibles of thinkers. It may have to come across as self-effacing, when I least wish to be.

Struggling to grasp and to tell discomfiting but important truths is one of the distinctive habits that sets us apart from other people—if “we” aim to be more than merely literate or articulate, and also aim to question things. Certainly the great many who believe what suits them do not relate to that habit, or appreciate it.

As far as claiming an identity, however, I think it is more important that turning that microscope toward ourselves distinguishes those of us who pursue genuine intellectual, psychological or philosophical effort from poseurs, who only retell the familiar truths they already overcame, knowing they might disturb or uproot someone else.

I count among these the “skeptics” who feel no duty to be skeptical of their own convictions. Those who no longer challenge their own justifications while they challenge others to reexamine theirs are more properly referred to as moralist than intellectual in any progressive or inquisitive sense.

In any case, the unexamined limitations of thinkers, and of philosophy—especially second- or third-hand ideas, in academia, journalism, and authorship of popular media—have poisoned or imperiled so much progress, there is far more at stake than being true to oneself in the tradition of thinkers with an intellectual conscience.

Scribes

The Cult of Letters

Intellectuals have long wished for other people to agree with them about the value of verbal ideas in themselves. They prefer a life of ideas, so their affinity is natural. Of course they also have an interest in bringing ideas to others, and interpreting them for others, for the status and influence it brings. At the same time they have some interest in opacity, not unlike that of priests who interpret the enigmas of a mystical religion. Intellectuals do not wish for transparency about their motives, and they do not wish to have their value questioned. They are no freer of ego than anyone else, as a rule, and no more disposed to introspection.

Questions are reasonable. What is the value of books, beyond selling books? What is education for, besides enlarging the industry of education, or providing technocrats able to perpetuate a system? What can language change? When we talk about things, what are we really accomplishing? Are we really getting to the bottom of anything? Is an intellectual life more profound than, say, a visceral life, or a life spent in nature? Is “book learning” more important to self-development than say, sexuality, or traveling?

What specific and personal reasons could an intellectual have for the ideas they subscribe to, other than the neutrality, objectivity, or intelligence they prefer to presume? More importantly, what will paying attention to what they say bring to someone who does?

What is the point of philosophy or philosophers, besides their own purposes, interest, fascination, or importance? Why should others pay attention to something they write, instead of—for instance—learning an ostensibly more practical skill? Why should it hold more value than say, manufacturing a better refrigerator, shipping trade goods, or planting a nice garden?

(I believe I know the long and unflinching answers to questions of this sort, but my point is that it’s truly extraordinary not to ask them. How usual, yet how egregious of the intellectual ilk to simply feel entitled to respect from others, like an aristocrat or bureaucrat, without earning it by doing serious work and making a real contribution to  life. A contribution need not be measurable, or quantifiable, or immediate, or tangible, but surely one could explain it, or demonstrate it, if it were real.)

Making a case for Art instead of mere entertainment bears a similar burden of proof. Art diverts personal, temporal, material, and financial resources to be lavished upon its creation, and appreciation. Art is difficult, and it makes demands. Why a troublesome mental exercise instead of a diverting story? If the mental exercise is our diverting story, we think the answer is straightforward: art, surely, should speak for itself. The artist, whose creative experience is so profound, also thinks art should not need justification, as does the aesthete. But art does not speak for itself, except to those who are already convinced by their emotion and perception.

We deceive ourselves to think that—unearned—a civilizational value like self-knowledge, or the means of the written word, speaks to those who have never known its worth personally. Justification is precisely what we must provide, if we wish to make the extraordinary case that our business, our cause, our purpose, our great project should become the business of others who presently see a perplexing waste where we recognize a necessary investment. Why should others who see an abstraction where we feel much more, join us and devote themselves to furthering its reality in some way, or support us in our work to do so?

It’s tempting, sometimes necessary, to write defenses of what is being lost. What is really called for is not idealization of these things, or of the types of people who are already persuaded by them, but first: transparency in admitting why certain people might already be won over. Sometimes, they have a liking as instinctive as any other. Unflatteringly, they might have motives as aggrandizing or indulgent as any.

Second, and only after establishing credibility with the first: communication which deepens the shallow appreciation others have. Demonstrate the value of a life, if you wish others to adopt any part of it.

If a philosopher is drawn to philosophize partly for the benefit of setting his mind in order—comparable to what practicing yoga does for others—this makes a surprising argument for learning to think in just such an ordered (precise, careful, or systematic) way—if not specifically as a philosopher, then as a critical thinker, perhaps under the label of a scientist.

(I remember hearing this sort of argument made for studying classical languages, back in prep school—in the traditional, philological manner, with formal grammar and linguistics. I thought it strange at the time, but in retrospect, it makes excellent sense to me. Even as the specifics of a Latin and Greek education fell into disuse in my memory, habits of explicit mental order continued to be useful.)

Another illustration: a poet is almost certainly a pretentious thing to be, a verbose and vestigial role about as vital as an appendix, to anyone who has not written poetry because they felt it—or else, heard their sense of life echoed in poetry, having understood that imagery and cadence are the birthrights of a tongue.

We are used to disingenuously speaking of the social good, instead of the personal good, when the personal good can be an easier case to make and a more persuasive one. Societal virtues from “creativity” to “learning” remain abstract, until they can be personally appreciated. That is true even if consequences of eroding a virtue—for enough people to fail to express it personally—are grave. The utilitarian argument for a virtue is weak by itself. Imagine the position of defending “romance” that way to someone who had never felt it!

A brief digression: conversely, what if the consequences for neglect are not dire? The same exercise of demonstration—of including others to understand, or at least participate in what they are missing—indicates selective importance when it is not persuasive; people find out what they are missing, and it is not much.

Narrow intellectual interests that have been claimed, justified, even trumpeted as “socially relevant” turn out to have relevance to a very few who articulate them. These have marginal importance to “society,” as this is comprised of nothing other than actual people. Personal knowledge obtained from familiarity is a valid microcosm of consequence, albeit incomplete.

Like an aesthetic that appeals to a certain type, some subjects are trivial and dispensable to anyone else who gets to know them. They aren’t merely specialized areas of expertise that are useful to others indirectly, like engineering—a fact which familiarity with the subject would reveal. They turn out to be extrinsic to civilizational needs, as well as the marrow of human pursuits.

(As an aside, I would argue that a case of precisely this is ongoing, as ideas about “identity” originating in academic cul-de-sacs reach a larger audience, third-hand, through mass-produced fiction with a see-through agenda, and internet media. To be lectured tastes like bitter medicine, particularly without the coating of a good story, or a dramatic proposal. But more than this, a wider audience finds these ideas themselves inapplicable, vacuous, or tiresome instead of liberating or redemptive [like any resounding myth]. The interested group may have expected to acquire importance like the medical experts the public willingly deputizes at great expense to cure disease; we need not understand the details to believe that specialists studying them conduct valuable work. Promulgators of identity politics may have hoped to awaken others to an ethic, or hoped to inspire existential discovery, much as promoters of class theory had hoped. Instead, today their diagnostics of “identity” are revealed to be—for most intents and purposes—neither remedial for social problems, nor inspiring to most individuals, as interesting as they seem to a self-appointed group.)

I see it as my task to show many of the virtues I wish were more prevalent, so they can be believed. I see it as my task to lay bare faults that can be remedied only if we are pointed to them, but also to concretize these things—like “the life of the mind”—that devotees want others to see as magical, too, and describe with an air of gnosis, things which more often appear unreal to others and therefore unconvincing.

If we claim anything as a pure good—as people have done with comprehensive knowledge, subversive knowledge, and every approach to “truth”—people will know this for a lie. They will suspect we are being vague about why it is a good at all, because it is not good for much. They can even dispute its substance completely, except as our favorite form of frippery, which they have no need of. Perfection is unconvincing.

Without acknowledging that there presently exists great skepticism, and perhaps for good reasons, toward many of the expensive, strange, troublesome, sometimes self-sacrificial values that generalists, artists, outsiders, crusaders, mavericks, psychologists, intellectuals, thinkers and philosophers take for granted, we will never convince those who subscribe to specialized, bourgeois, materialistic, literal, popular, and conventional values today that they are deprived—nor (as I believe) that they are taking terrible risks with the future, and with things that matter to everybody. This is a case we can make only by earning the right to make it.

We should be willing to say “Perhaps they are right!” and even dare to say, “Maybe what I am doing is useless, or unimportant,” or at least wonder in what particular ways that might be so. There is no other way but to admit the possibility, and entertain it provisionally, so that the impractical can be shown to be practical—or so that it can be made so by developing it with greater substance, relevance, and honesty than before. Unproductive occupation, and trivial preoccupations can be abandoned, so that other lines can be taken up with energy.

These are the gifts of criticism. Centuries of cloistered assurance and praise have enfeebled the life of the mind, gutted the profession of the philosopher (except for those who followed Nietzsche, who reformed by asking the hard questions), and debased literature and intellectualism.

With all our technology, we are scrabbling for the stuff to repair civilization, mixing one mortar after another that will not hold. I would not ignore those who do not trust thinkers (as they know them), or value thinking deeply. I would listen to people who are not satisfied by ideas today sooner than I would blame them.

We should keep asking the same questions they do, on the face of it: “What good is it?” And good for whom, and good for what?

This is a radical impulse, instinctively resisted by those who are invested in depth and complication. Nevertheless, it is a good one intellectuals neglect. They will not hear it. Their habitual inner rejoinder is always, “if only you knew the depth and complication I do!”

The doubts and questions seem superficial—and they are—when (as the intellectual knows) they are challenges that come from simplicity, from unfamiliarity with intellectualism, and ignorance of that “depth and complication.”

In fact, it is the intellectual who can take the doubts and questions deeper, enrich them, and fulfill their exploration, which is so essential; a life of study, and working with ideas, is essential to knowing how to question itself properly, and not just essential for instructing others. But insofar as carrying on with these simple, pragmatic questions appears to be a quest to destroy oneself—to undermine a reason for being, to unmask triviality, to obsolete oneself—the intellectual refuses to take it up seriously. The intellectual calls those simplistic questions.

In fact, so many intellectuals resist explaining themselves as clearly as they can—preferring the obfuscation of jargon, and to write in academic formats—that it suggests genuine, existential doubts about what and how much they really have to say, and even their professions. Do they know what they are good for, and why anyone else should care? Confidence does not always mean a reason to feel confident, and of course many poor amateurs with ideas convert credentials into popular books or platforms. But the lack of confidence to speak clearly and speak out oftentimes suggests the construction of elaborate and preposterous facades to distract—from what? Perhaps, from foundations that no one looks forward to testing. Perhaps from a Potemkin village, or a show city for no one to really live in. Perhaps also a construction project that is continually built, ripped down, and rebuilt so that its architects and laborers have eternal work.

Those who work, in some sense, to build civilization would not be afraid to say so, or at least to take pride in their part of it. Otherwise, people will rightly suspect this is not their business, at all. Creators who have a promise to fulfill, and a humanistic reason to act, would not be reluctant to explain how and why.

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Excerpt: Awe and Presence

Another preview from The Constellation of Man: Part 3 (of 8) from Book I of Volume I. —CPB


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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

Our “reality” is habitually pared-down, less complex, less awe-inducing, less exciting, as an acclimation. We require experiences to open our eyes to the world around us and within us.

The experiences can always be found. In fact there are too many for our attention. But we must cease to be dead to our senses and our callings.

On one occasion we have reason to doubt. On another, we have reason to marvel. From one time to the other, it is, most significantly, we that have become different, whatever else has changed around us.

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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

It is not unusual that one who encounters pain or tedium lives through what seems like too much to bear, and closes. Another can observe this hardened attitude and see nothing but immaturity. They see a stuck, troubled, thoughtless child, crying “I am jaded, and there is nothing left to amaze and delight me.”

It is common to encounter hardening or dulling experiences that strip away the innocence of youth. It is rare to learn what to take from harsh or deficient experience—how to meet experiences, and not only receive them; how to remain sensitive through what could deaden, how to sublimate what could scar, and how to remain open instead of closing.

Disciplined learning about the world yields some resilience, though not the same that comes with practice. At least, learning can supply alternatives to a single way of seeing and experiencing things, or too few.

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Nelumbo nucifera, sacred lotus; umbilical symbol of creation, rebirth, unfolding enlightenment, purity, and more; seat of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas; iconic in myths of Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi; identified with Buddha. In “On the Love of the Lotus,” Chinese sage Zhou Dun Yi observed in poetic allegory that the lotus, both open and straight, grows out of mud, but remains unsullied.

It is necessary to gather perspectives on our own experiences from the breadth and depth of other experiences across time and place. All our lives are local and limited. Greatness can blossom from opening up to just a little more.

Transcending our place to see more, and awakening to the transcendent in us is one purpose of religious mythology.

Scientific knowledge can act as myth just the same; if a child is told the story of how she is made of star-stuff, she learns that her own atoms were once forged within the nuclear cores of stars bright eons before the sun, and by vaster stars that exploded. She learns that life-giving atoms in her and all people were star-sown. The truth of that legend is both incidental to its transcendental power and majesty, and no detraction.

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Light from the edge of a blast wave from a star that exploded approximately 6000 BC, during Neolithic civilization on Earth. The visible supernova remnant is now called the Veil Nebula. This mosaic of Hubble telescope images shows a small section of the distant Nebula, with false colors assigned to emissions from hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

An expansive revelation about our place, and our connections to some mystery we have to struggle to imagine, fills us with awe. Awe is a kind of restorative experience. Awe knocks ennui aside without a thought for the tedium that formerly seemed to pervade life.

In awe, one forgets doubts, and ever feeling that life is insignificant, unimportant, pointless—or miserable, consigned to suffering, or to guilt. One forgets feeling that life itself could be subjected to doubts. Awe induces doubt that life could be known, could be encompassed by our smaller experience.

Simple novelty of experience promotes a modest openness. To pursue novelty is certainly easier and much more common than an awesome, transcendent revelation. Even if novel experiences do not teach, they can achieve some restoration of feeling.

Otherwise, our familiar world seems too small and too usual. That familiar domain occludes the unseen remainder of the world. Life, too familiar, obstructs our participation in all else, diverse as we cannot imagine. Life seems cramped, repetitive, even hopeless. This is our feeling, unfairly attributed to other life without our constraint and beyond our limitations. Our impression of life portrays a distortion of life, conditioned or contained. Escape from noticing life only seems the credible alternative to neurosis and depression.

A routine travesty of living appears ridiculous in the face of further experiences discovered by spontaneity, or created by improvisation. Moments in which we experience different things—or even familiar things, differently—can then become extraordinary to us. These moments deliver us.

It is not too difficult to make extraordinary moments, for those who know they must seek them out. Ordinary moments are not ordinary at all to those who know how to transform them, with observance, into informal rituals. Sense phenomena that others take for granted can attain a phenomenal attention, a spiritual attention, suitable for sacrament.

[To feel] spiritual presence means and requires that you are present. All that becomes banal—an urban skyline view, an alcoholic high, a walk in the woods, rhythm or melody, a sexual touch, an idea written long ago—can be refreshed with spirit.

Spiritual experiences are restorative, as well as extraordinary experiences. They feel special, and make us feel special about ourselves or about living—eternal objects of human desire, taking infinite guises.

Feeling special about ourselves is indistinct from the impression of having purpose, or life having significance or meaning. A “relationship with God” communicates that one is special, that one has purpose, and life has meaning. But this is the same thing that people want most from romantic relationships with other people: the opportunity to feel special about themselves through a sense of connection-to-other. They want transcendence not only from changes in perspective, but manifested in experience made special—spiritual—through renewed attention to the senses, and ensuing intensification. The bond becomes sacred; the sexual rite becomes holy. A deep relationship with one’s work or calling can likewise become sanctified by devotion, attention, and presence.

A sacred or holy experience is not derived from a thing, place, or action called sacred or holy. We must supply preparation for a sense of the sacred or holy, which can be found in almost anything; it is the person who charges the encounter, not whatever seems sacred or holy.

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Lotus Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship, New Delhi

It is a great mystical, esoteric, and at times heretical teaching that the high experiences of religion are open to you. They are allowed. They are already implicit in the living human body, though not well-realized without practice. You can learn to recognize doors and need not depend on formal rituals to unlock them. You need not borrow a set of keys that dogma approves and intercessors must provide.

Even the grandest senses of divinity do not depend upon being seized by powers outside ourselves. The power to have transcendent experiences in the world unfolds from living, open to transcendent experiences.

You must ask yourself if you allow a sense of awe before the majesty of the world, intricate beyond your knowledge, beyond your time.

Can you hear, can you say: “Awake, awake! The world is new from this moment!” This feeling can begin a creation story for a new life.

 

Awe and other concepts that sound religious describe experiences to be realized in actual life. Grace and blessedness, transcendence and revelation, love, joy, passion, ecstasy and rapture are also called religious experiences, but they refer to real experiences of feeling nonetheless.

When religion is made regular, named, and organized, these experiences are exceedingly likely to remain concepts, drafted into rituals or doctrines that may be practiced and followed without those feelings; religion without spirit; religion left with dead metaphors, antique distractions; dogma now without corpus.

Life without the set of spiritual experiences is limited to a subset without sensations of “meaning.”

All the religious concepts—or rather, spiritual feelings behind religious concepts—can be naturalized, made part of our clearer understanding of natural, human life rooted in the body’s nervous system and the dispositions and needs of the mind. Spiritual experiences are special neural experiences, not supernatural or otherworldly experiences. The numinous can be integrated into natural life, and not cast out to the supernatural—nor dismissed along with superstition by the secular-minded.

Awe has become rarer than ever before. That few wonder at the rarity of the experience called awe could almost explain its rarity. The near absence of awe in adulthood seems to go virtually unnoticed and unremarked, though the experience is extraordinary. Awe has become an empty word out of fashion to modern people who cannot relate. Many identify awe with religious devotion, no longer valued, or practiced only as custom. But devotion is a road to awe, to pervasive holiness, to reverence and resonance, and if these things must be lost with secular deliverance from superstition, we should have cause to question whether that is deliverance at all. By all those numb and jaded, awe is missed, and the unshaken soul perceived, if not by words, then deep down instead.

But it is not necessary to lose awe without religion, just as it is not necessary to abandon spirit. Awe before God, or gods, represents awe before the epic of life in the world. It is simply that the origin of mighty experiences was mistaken to be might outside oneself.

Love, also, wells up and flows out from within, not to the credit of objects of fixation: idealized figures of divinity, or erotic attraction. We have in our brains the means for intense alterations of perception and participation. In a sense, as long as we are thus prepared, the triggers are almost incidental, if we know better than to attribute our electrified chemistry to them. We misbelieve in our dependency on others, and outside forces.

Religious experiences can be summoned up from within oneself. This is the “heresy” of personal divinity, that because I can summon up divine feelings, I am God—another untrue metaphor to express a truth.

 

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Excerpt: The Sage and the Town That Was Dreaming and Drowning

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections were written by me since 2010. Some are unrepresentative. All remain in development, subject to change. —CPB


A sage who offered the greatest of gifts walked through a town of worries, and spoke to the townspeople.

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lithograph of Kandahar, 1847

Some listened. He told them not what they wanted to hear, but what would solve their problems.

One onlooker, a merchant from another town who revered the wisdom of the itinerant sage, was surprised to see most of these townspeople turn from the sage, spit on the ground, or even slap him in the face. Finally, a group of men threatened the sage, and knocked him down when he continued to speak.

“What awful ingratitude!” the merchant exclaimed, helping the sage to his feet. “And how foolish they are. You came to help, and they reject it thoughtlessly.”

The sage shook his head. “For all their contempt, they are not telling me they reject the knowledge I offer. They are not even telling me I am wrong, although they say so. They are telling me: ‘I did not hear it in the right way.’ My words were not what they expected.”

“Surely, it should not matter what words you used. A drowning man would not refuse a rough hand grabbing him. And I think a man who is dreaming of what he wants will not make rude objections to the djinni who can grant his wish, no matter the surprise to the man, or the manner of the djinni.”

The sage smiled. “Truly, the townsfolk are both dreaming, and drowning. But they must save themselves, and grant their own wishes. I told them so, but they do not realize they are dreaming and drowning. Therefore, they do not know the importance of recognizing that predicament. They do not await hearing knowledge they could use to help themselves. They only hear that I have made demands of them, and consider themselves rudely put upon.”

“I see,” said the merchant slowly. “Wisdom offers a horse to those who have packed a cart ready to hitch. But those who have been trying to drag cargo behind them only feel that they are being goaded to go faster like a beast of burden. Besides, if they knew what you do, that they are stuck, they might already have less need to hear it. They might have found their own horse. I see. Very good.”

The merchant was satisfied to learn how it could be that the value of a sagacious perspective to save and change lives does not prevent its rejection.

“But how,” he added, “supposing you are right… realization must come before accepting knowledge. But without acquiring knowledge, how will they come to realization? How could you tell them what they need to hear in some way that would get around their obstinacy?”

“They must go forward in their backbreaking journey until they realize they have need of my horse. Walking the hard road may teach what hard words do not. They cannot avoid it so easily as they can close their ears to being told where they are and what they are doing. Let us wish them a short journey to preparation, for the way can be painful.”

“What a shame! But that means your visit to this town has been a wasted one.”

“Not at all. I will continue to try. Some ears might be open, and I would spare them hardship. Indeed I will think harder about how I speak to them. How they will hear it is more important than what I say.”

The merchant bade farewell to the sage. He stood and watched him as he walked into the distance. He wondered about the people who drag weight behind them and refuse a means of relief. He thought about those who keep getting stuck in the road, and curse those who pass. “Perhaps,” he thought, “they should be left to figure out their situation for themselves. It might be better for learning if they have to search for a horse to draw their cart.”

But at length, he marveled at their suffering, the suffering of the men and women of the town. He realized how few would manage to raise themselves up off the hard road and out of its potholes and mud before they were broken by the bitter labors of fools and beasts.

He looked into the distance, in the direction the sage had gone, and nodded.

Learning for yourself requires attention to disagreement, and suspension of judgment (epoché)

I wrote this tonight in response to someone equating the unmooring-from-reality of reptilian-conspiracist Icke-followers with sound money activists (End-the-Fed and Paul boosters), someone whose dismissal of the Austrian economists indicated he didn’t know a thing about them besides a number of falsehoods. But, I think it’s a point worth sharing more generally:

Certainly, it’s easier to think you have a clue about a subject when you only read a limited set of views, or people you already agree with, instead of some of the many others who disagree. It’s easier to presume they’re all clueless, crazy, weird, or poorly educated, instead, without actually finding out.

Reliable knowledge is obtained by admitting that disagreement is not indicative of stupidity. Learning is a process that occurs not when we absorb information like a sponge, but when we allow ourselves to consider other points of view by taking them seriously on a provisional basis, and attempt to sort out and reconcile contradictions and disconnects. Otherwise, everyone will continue to defend whatever points of view about a subject were first imparted to them, no matter how skewed, or incomplete.

An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson

I hope this film does justice to Bateson, especially the best of his categorical thinking about different kinds of thinking we do, and all his mighty efforts to make sense out of the mind we assume we understand, and therefore do not. Unfortunately there has been a tendency by others not as brilliant to render his subtlety into overly specific applications that ignore the real points of systems and cybernetics.

Rather like Nietzsche—another of my favorite thinkers—in my experience the optimal way to understand Bateson’s ways of thinking is to read him, not to read about him. Although it may appear easier to allow others to sift through his work for you, and summarization may even work reasonably well to understand main points of other philosophers, with Bateson the evasion of your own labor sifting through his work probably also evades the golden yield of it. In both his case and Nietzsche’s, the most important part is not specifically what he will discuss but how he will do it, and how he will urge you to learn to think in the process. That you will have to think, and how you will, is important. Bateson is also no more easily distilled than Nietzsche, and perhaps similarly prone to both distortion, and projection by readers of what they already want or expect to read there, based on preconceptions and fixations.

Learning how to learn, and create

Objectively, trying to top my best work gets harder and harder.

I think about this as I return to writing about obstacles to understanding and realizing personal and social “progress,” which I made the subject of a 2007 essay called Rising in Walls (in this anthology). Rising in Walls was probably the best work I wrote up to that point. I am still very proud of that treatment of these themes (sort of my improvement upon Colin Wilson’s exploratory questioning approach in The Outsider). However, I am now working with a different stylistic approach to conveying some related ideas, to see how I can improve upon what I did (or at least, add some different perspective in a more gripping style). This is also a 2010 from-scratch rewrite of my original attempt at a “central” Promethean synthesis (last version, 2003) which adds more pressure.

Such a task could be quite unnerving, and it’s never easy to always say, “right, that was good, or even great—how do I do better next time?”

But the really interesting thing is this: I’ve noticed that over the past dozen years, I have somehow acquired more momentum behind doing just that (topping myself). It becomes less of a struggle, in some respects, though still quite the challenge.

I guess this relates in part to a research interest of Gregory Bateson, “deutero-learning” or second-order learning. “Learning how to learn” is a phenomenon that has been experimentally confirmed with new task performance on a graph, but there also seems to be second-order adaptation to facilitate creative processes. It seems the brain can adapt methods for encountering new challenges, in that sense, also.

Almost certainly this has to do with acquiring more flexibility, such as more models to use to think, and more colors in my creative palette so to speak, and fewer unneeded “rules” for myself.

More confidence, also. My motto now is to have no fear; I trust my creative instincts and take risks in changing up what I’ve already written, without worrying half as much as I used to.

It’s an amazingly gratifying thing to actually experience—one of the special rewards for devoting your life to “mastering” something as Bateson put it, one that really only becomes clear after a number of years of intense work and intense reevaluation.